Benefits of Yoga in Weight Loss

It might surprise you to learn that yoga is an excellent exercise for weight loss. After all, when most people think of yoga, they usually think of a sequence of poses, often combined with meditation and breathing exercises. While daily performance of these poses will improve your flexibility, you won't achieve the elevated heart rate of runners or build muscle like weightlifters. And holding a pose for 30 seconds or longer before shifting to the next is hardly what most weight loss gurus or even the average person would associate with sloughing off the pounds.

Yet, many adherents swear by yoga as a weight loss method. Celebrities such as Jennifer Anniston and Gwyneth Paltrow both credit yoga with helping them lose weight, and it's not hard to find yogis and yoginis from all walks of life who attribute double digit pound reductions--often in improbably short time frames--to their practice of yoga.

Does Yoga Really Work for Weight Loss?

First, it's important to mention that there are different types of yoga, which may produce somewhat different results in terms of weight loss. Iyengar yoga is the most commonly taught form of yoga, and does involve a series of stationary poses. These poses can improve your overall fitness level, muscle tone and flexibility, but the average person taking a regular Iyengar yoga class only burns 150 calories during the course of an hour. To compare, the same person would burn just over 300 calories an hour walking at a moderate pace of 3 mph. While the improved muscle tone should slightly increase your resting metabolism, one would expect the total weight loss effect from an Iyengar yoga class to be tiny. Yet, somehow, Iyengar yoga seems to provide weight loss results all out of proportion to its calorie burning benefits.

A four-year study of 15,500 healthy men and women conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that overweight participants who took part in at least one half hour session per week during the four-year period but didn't change their diet or incorporate any other exercise lost an average of five pounds over the course of the study. A control group of participants who were already overweight and did nothing at all gained an average of 14 pounds. Among all participants in the study who started out overweight, regardless of diet or activity level, the groups who practiced yoga lost more weight than the ones who did not practice yoga. Among the participants who started out at their desired weight, those who regularly practiced yoga were much better at maintaining as opposed to gaining.

And these results were achieved with traditional, low-stress yoga. There are other types which provide greater immediate cardiovascular and strength workouts, and quicker weight loss.

Hot Yoga

Hot yoga, as its name implies, is practiced in a room heated to between 90 and 105 degrees. It is one of two forms of yoga developed in 20th century America which seem particularly suited to weight loss purposes. Originally, there was just one form of hot yoga, Bikram yoga, but other offshoots (not allowed to be called Bikram Yoga due to trademark issues) have since developed from the same basic principles.

Is hot yoga effective? Certainly, it's great for quickly shedding water weight. If you work out for 30 minutes to an hour or more in a room heated to 100 degrees, you are going to sweat off some weight. However, losing water weight isn't the same as losing fat, and just as it can be taken off more quickly, it can return faster as well. Nonetheless, hot yoga contributes to a faster heart rate and a more aerobic workout than the same exercises performed in cooler temperatures, so it is likely to have moderately greater weight loss benefits than regular yoga.

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa literally translates as "breath-synchronized movement," which is an accurate description of the various styles of Vinyasa yoga. Based on a simple technique wherein the instructor guides the student from one pose to the next on an inhale or an exhale, Vinyasa is also known as Flow yoga because of the way each pose flows into the next. Because of the constant movement, Vinyasa yoga gives its students a better aerobic workout with the corresponding heightened metabolic rate, than more stationary types of yoga.

Depending on exactly how it is done, Vinyasa can appear to be an elegant, dance-like form of yoga or a hardcore cardiovascular strength training workout. The latter form of Vinyasa has gained the greatest popularity over the last 20 years.

Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga is one of the two types of yoga, along with hot yoga, most often cited for maximum weight loss possibilities. Of the older styles of yoga, Ashtanga yoga put the greatest emphasis on building strength and powerful muscles. In the latter part of the 20th century, a high intensity version of Ashtanga was developed and dubbed "power yoga."

Combining elements of strength training, aerobics, and traditional yoga, power yoga is excellent for building muscle, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness. And the extra muscle you build from power yoga will help you burn off calories even faster. Yet most experts who have studied power yoga insist that by measurable standards, you will receive much smaller weight loss benefits from even power yoga than from running, race walking, or advanced aerobic routines.

How Does Yoga Work for Weight Loss?

Given that it seems relatively less effective than other forms of exercise for burning calories, why do so many people report dramatic weight loss benefits from yoga, and why do studies indicate yoga practitioners lose weight more successfully than participants who don't do yoga? Scientists who have studied the matter are still unsure, but advocates of yoga point to the various mental and emotional benefits one can gain from regular yoga classes.

Stress is one of the greatest factors in weight gain for many people. By relaxing your mind and body, yoga reduces stress-related eating even if you are making no conscious effort to diet. In addition, long term stress has been shown to slow the metabolism. By combining greater fitness with reduced stress, yoga doubly improves your resting rate of calorie consumption.

Yoga also places great emphasis on mindfulness, being aware of what you are doing at all times. If you are consciously in touch with your body and how your actions are going to affect it, you are much less likely to consume an extra thousand calories in snacks throughout the day, and more likely to make healthy eating choices.

Mindfulness can also impact how you live your life aside from yoga and eating. Practitioners of yoga who are in touch with their bodies are more likely to make choices that lead to a healthier body in every aspect of their lives. They are more likely to exercise more, and exercise smarter, whether the exercise includes activities beyond yoga or not. Combined with healthier eating, reduced stress, and improved circulation and muscle tone, it's no wonder that students of yoga usually see noticeable weight loss benefits.